"Sir Gawaine the Son of Lot, King of Orkney" from: The Story of King Arthur and His Knights. Pyle, Howard (1853-1911), New York: Scribner's, 1903.
Credit: Courtesy of The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester.
King Arthur, Camelot, Gawain, a bold challenge, a perilous journey, a beheading, an enchantment, and a shape-shifter are the ingredients of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For the modern reader, Sir Gawain's tale is riveting even without understanding its symmetry or cultural and historical context. Viewed through the lens of the medieval thinker, reading this Arthurian tale becomes a rich, multi-layered experience.
Gawain and the Green Knight, written in Middle English in the late 1300s, combines two stories familiar to contemporary audiences under the overarching story of Arthur's round table and his feud with his half-sister Morgan le Fay. The first is a beheading tale, which becomes the impetus behind Gawain's quest and frames the second tale, Bertilak's test of Gawain's honor. As Gawain completes his adventures and returns home, the audience is led to consider the true measure of a hero.
This lesson plan explores symmetry in the structure and themes of Gawain, delving into the antagonist's representation of the "duality of nature." In examining knightly virtues, students will measure Gawain's strength as the poem's hero. The lesson explains background information that every medieval thinker listening to a performance of the poem would know, in an effort to put the student into the mind-set of the medieval audience, providing a deeper appreciation and understanding of the work.
Gawain, written in Middle English in the late 1300s, is considered part of the alliterative revival in British literature. Although, because so few manuscripts survive from the time, it is equally likely that the alliterative tradition continued unbroken, complicating the notion of a “revival.” Alliteration is the repetition of the first consonant sound in a series of words ("Pat picks a piece of pie"), a practice in Medieval verse that gained renewed popularity in poems such as Gawain. In alliterative verse, each line of a poem usually contains three or four stressed syllables that repeat the same consonant sound. Here's an example from Gawain in modern English:
The battlements broken down and burnt to brands and ashes.” (Fitt 1, Line 2)
More specifically, lines in alliterative verse are usually divided into two halves. The first half of each line usually contains one or two stressed syllables that repeat the same sound. These two sounds match the first sound in the second half of the line plus that of another stressed syllable. In the example above:
The first half of the line is: “The battlements broken down and.”
The second half of the line is: “burnt to brands and ashes.”
The “b” is alliterated. In the first half of the line it appears twice in two stressed syllables (battlements, broken). In the second half of the line, it appears in the initial, stressed syllable (burnt) and in another stressed syllable (brands).
Besides alliteration, Gawain and the Green Knight uses a poetic form called the “bob and wheel.” A definition of the "bob and wheel," available through the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library, describes key parts of a stanza in Gawain. The main stanza concludes with five lines that rhyme ababa. The first line, called the "bob," is usually only two syllables; the "bob" serves as the bridge between the long series of alliterative lines and the concluding four rhyming lines, which are the "wheel." The bob maintains both the alliteration of the previous lines while it also begins the rhyme scheme of the concluding "bob and wheel." Review a sample passage from Gawain, which is annotated to highlight the "bob and wheel" structure.
Ask students to practice their knowledge by annotating the passage from Gawain in the Bob and Wheel handout. Ask them to mark examples of alliteration, the bob, and the wheel, including the rhyme scheme.
Have students examine the descriptions of characters and situations in the first 29 stanzas of the poem.
The beheading game the Green Knight proposes has a longstanding place in the oral tradition of the day. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight uses this tale in conjunction with another known tale that appears in later sections—that of sexual pursuit. For now, ask students to consider the following questions:
Have students closely reread Fitt 1, Stanzas 7 through 10 (lines 130 through 231) and consider how the Green Knight is described. The symbolism of the Green Knight's clothing is an example of balance in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Green Knight is described as being dressed in green, the color of the land, with embroidery of gold, the color of the sun. In the Middle Ages, people would understand the color symbolism and its ties to the duality of nature. Green can symbolize nature's positive aspects like renewal, protection, fertility, the coming of spring, birth, and regeneration, or its negative aspects like the wild, uncontrolled forces of nature which can dominate or even destroy man.
The duality of the Green Knight is also evident in the items he holds in each hand. The holly bob, an evergreen, is a symbol of peace. The poet devotes only 2 lines the holly bob. The glowing green axe in his other hand, which the poet devotes 14 lines to, demonstrates physical domination, violence and fighting.
The pentangle is a star-shape that, like a Celtic Knot, can be drawn without lifting your pen from the paper. When completed it has no beginning and no end, representing an endless cycle. The poem describes the perfection of the pentangle and how it is a perfect emblem for Gawain's shield:
Right well and worthily it went with the knight And why the pentangle is proper to that prince so noble I intend now to tell you, though it may tarry my story… for it is a figure that in it five points holdeth, and each line overlaps and is linked with another and every way it is endless; and the English, I hear, everywhere name it the Endless Knot." (Stanza 27)
The formal structure of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight represents an endless cycle. The poem is composed of 101 stanzas. The poem begins in the first stanza with the Fall of Troy and ends in poem's "extra" stanza (Stanza 101) with the Fall of Troy, establishing an endless cycle—a closed shape like the pentangle. The poem also begins in Stanza 1 at a Yuletide celebration. The passing of the next three seasons occurs rather quickly at the opening of Fitt 2. The poem then returns to the Yuletide season, which is where it ends in the last stanza, representing the passage of a full year, plus a day, again creating a closed shape, a complete and endless cycle.
As he gets ready to fulfill his promise to find the Green Knight, the poems pays a great deal of attention to Gawain's preparations and attire. The pentangle is an important shape in the poem, representing both the "endless knot" as well as "five fives"—five points of five where Gawain excels—another example of symmetry within the work. Have students read the description of Gawain and his shield in lines 619-669. The Shield Worksheet provides a space for students to list the "five fives" for each point, which represents Gawain's aspirations for balance and symmetry as a true knight. Gawain aspires to all the secular virtues and the virtues of knighthood:
(a) free-giving (or generosity)
(b) friendliness (or brotherhood)
(c) chastity (or purity)
(d) chivalry (or courtesy)
(e) piety (or compassion)
Ask students to consider everyone's behavior to this point in light of the knightly virtues as described through the description of Gawain's shield. How have they behaved, or not behaved, in light of these mandates?
Advise students to keep these issues in mind as they continue with the poem.
As students read Fitt 3, ask them to explore the Aberdeen Bestiary, a collection of short descriptions about all sorts of animals, real and imaginary, accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Labyrinth. The editors of the Bestiary describe the work as follows:
A Bestiary is a collection of short descriptions about all sorts of animals, real and imaginary, birds and even rocks, accompanied by a moralising explanation. Although it deals with the natural world it was never meant to be a scientific text and should not be read as such. Some observations may be quite accurate but they are given the same weight as totally fabulous accounts. The Bestiary appeared in its present form in England in the twelfth century, as a compilation of many earlier sources, principally the Physiologus. A great deal of its charm comes from the humour and imagination of the illustrations, painted partly for pleasure but justified as a didactic tool “to improve the minds of ordinary people, in such a way that the soul will at least perceive physically things which it has difficulty grasping mentally: that what they have difficulty comprehending with their ears, they will perceive with their eyes” (Aberdeen MS 24, f25v).
The online version of the Aberdeen Bestiary shows illustrations of the animals and offers translations of the accompanying text. Knowing what to expect from each animal will help students see the parallel between the actions of the hunted animals (deer, boar, fox) and Gawain's actions when the Lady pursues him. Have students use the Hunt Comparison worksheet to take notes while reading this section.
The Bestiary notes that deer "change their feeding-ground for love of another country, and in doing so, they support each other." They are compared to members of the church.
The boar is wild, untamed, and savage.
The fox "is fleet-footed and never runs in a straight line but twists and turns. It is a clever, crafty animal. When it is hungry and can find nothing to eat, it rolls itself in red earth so that it seems to be stained with blood, lies on the ground and holds it breath, so that it seems scarcely alive. When birds see that it is not breathing, that it is flecked with blood and that its tongue is sticking out of its mouth, they think that it is dead and descend to perch on it. Thus it seizes them and devours them." Its nature is compared to that of the devil.
In the third section of the poem, Bertilak proposes a game to Gawain in which the two men exchange the winnings each man yields: Bertilak in his hunt for "game" outdoors and Gawain in his pursuit of rest indoors. The poet juxtaposes the scenes of the hunt outdoors with scenes of Gawain's temptations by the beautiful lady, Bertilak's wife. Gawain's adherence to courtesy and the rules of courtly love, his devotion to the Madonna, and his oath of knighthood are all tested.
The behavior of the animals and the people in the literal and metaphorical "hunts" are presented symmetrically. On the first day, the deer try to run away and hide (Stanza 47). Gawain was embarrassed and tries to feign sleep (Stanza 48). On the second day, the boar proves to be a formidable opponent alternately confronting, feinting and eluding them for the whole day (Stanza 57, 63, 64). Gawain, now ready for the lady, is also a formidable opponent. He firmly, but courteously, resists her (Stanzas 58-61). On the third day, as the men are tracking the wily fox, he is called "thief" (Stanza 69). This foreshadows Gawain's acceptance of the green girdle, which he should refuse if he is adhering to rules of propriety. The men track the fox (Stanzas 68) vigorously and the lady pursues Gawain vigorously (Stanza 73) offering him a ring, which he refuses. Gawain acts as a fox cunningly avoiding the lady's advances (Stanza 72).
Have students do a close reading of Section 45 for the rules for the exchange of the winnings and all of Fitt 3 (Sections 46-79) for the complete account of the three hunts, the three temptations, and the three exchanges of winnings as they complete the Hunt Comparison worksheet.
The fourth Fitt of Gawain's tale follows the knight as he fulfills his promise to appear at the Green Chapel within a "twelvemonth and a day." Leaving Bertilak's home, Gawain travels to the Chapel, where he once again encounters the Green Knight. Kneeling, Gawain exposes his neck to the axe blow. The Green Knight swings the axe three times. At the first, Gawain flinches; the second is a trial to see if Gawain would flinch again. The third blow draws blood, but is carefully administered to avoid any real harm. Gawain discovers, then, that the tests of the hunt and the beheading game were of the same ilk, created to test the honor and integrity of Arthur's knights. The Green Knight is revealed to be Bertilak, Gawain's earlier host, who had been enchanted by Morgan le Fay in order to administer the test of Arthur's court.
Have students use the PDF worksheet The Beheading Game as they examine the game in light of Gawain's earlier test.
Ask students to consider the reactions of the various participants to the outcome of Gawain's quest.
Ask students to write a brief essay examining Gawain as a hero. Did he succeed or fail? What does the test reveal about Gawain, Arthur, and Arthur's court?
The Gawain-poet frames the poem within a Christian context while drawing on well-known pagan stories. Ask students to consider the role of Christianity within Gawain and the Green Knight. What beliefs seem central to the Gawain-poet's agenda?
3-4 class periods